Rome: Recommended Books and Movies

By Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw

To learn more about Rome past and present, check out a few of these books and films.

Books: Nonfiction

  • Absolute Monarchs (John Julius Norwich, 2011). This warts-and-all illustrated guide to the most significant popes in history is a readable best seller.
  • Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire (Simon Baker, 2007). Baker chronicles the rise and demise of the great Roman Empire and its powerful leaders.
  • City: A Story of Roman Planning and Construction (David Macaulay, 1974). Macaulay's illustrated book about the Eternal City will please both kids and adults.
  • A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome (Alberto Angela, 2007). Travel back to the world of gladiators and grand banquets in this 24-hour journey through the ancient city.
  • Eat, Pray, Love (Elizabeth Gilbert, 2006). Gilbert undertakes a stirring journey of self-discovery through Italy, India, and Indonesia (also a 2010 movie with Julia Roberts).
  • A Literary Companion to Rome (John Varriano, 1992). In these 10 self-guided walking tours, Roman sites associated with Ibsen, Dickens, Woolf, Wilde, and other great writers are explained in detail.
  • Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling (Ross King, 2003). The story behind the Sistine Chapel includes Michelangelo's technical difficulties, personality conflicts, and money troubles.
  • The Pope's Elephant (Silvio A. Bedini, 1997). Pope Leo X's favorite pet was an albino elephant named Hanno, and his story is also an account of the end of Rome's Golden Age.
  • Rome and a Villa (Eleanor Clark, 1952). This masterful collection of vignettes by the wife of Robert Penn Warren touches such diverse topics as Rome's Protestant Cemetery and Hadrian's Villa.
  • Saints & Sinners (Eamon Duffy, 1997). Everything you always wanted to know about the popes, but were afraid to ask.
  • The Seasons of Rome (Paul Hofmann, 1997). A former New York Times bureau chief reveals the eccentricities of Rome often overlooked by tourists.
  • The Secrets of Rome: Love and Death in the Eternal City (Corrado Augias, 2005). Augias takes readers back through 27 centuries of Roman history, secrets, and conspiracies.
  • When in Rome (Robert Hutchinson, 1998). A lapsed (sometimes irreverent) Catholic discovers the roots of Christianity in Vatican City.

Books: Fiction

  • The Agony and the Ecstasy (Irving Stone, 1958). Stone fictionalizes Michelangelo's struggle to paint the Sistine Chapel (also a 1965 movie starring Charlton Heston).
  • Angels & Demons (Dan Brown, 2000). The Da Vinci Code author's page-turner about a secret society and a time bomb in the Vatican (also a 2009 movie starring Tom Hanks).
  • Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio (Amara Lakhous, 2006). The multicultural community of a Roman apartment building confronts the death of one of its members.
  • The Decameron (Giovanni Boccaccio, 1348). Boccaccio's collection of 100 hilarious, often bawdy tales is a masterpiece of Italian literature and inspired Chaucer, Keats, and Shakespeare.
  • The First Man in Rome (Colleen McCullough, 1990). The author of The Thorn Birds describes the early days of the Roman Republic, in the first of a best-selling series of historical fiction.
  • I, Claudius (Robert Graves, 1934). This brilliant history of ancient Rome is told by Claudius, the family's laughingstock who becomes emperor himself. The sequel is Claudius the God (1935).
  • Italian Journey (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1786). In his 18th-century collection of writings, Goethe describes his travels to Rome, Sicily, and Naples.
  • Lucrezia Borgia (Maria Bellonci, 1939). In this historically based tale of court intrigue, a daughter of Pope Alexander VI navigates passions, plots, and controversy in Renaissance Rome.
  • Pompeii (Robert Harris, 2003). The engineer responsible for Pompeii's aqueducts has a bad feeling about Mount Vesuvius in this historical novel.
  • The Roman Spring of Ms. Stone (Tennessee Williams, 1950). A wealthy American widow and former stage actress haunts the Eternal City in the years after WWII, seeking purpose amid its grandeur.
  • A Soldier of the Great War (Mark Helprin, 1991). A young Roman lawyer falls in love with an art student, but World War I rips them apart.
  • That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana (Carlo Emilio Gadda, 1957). This detective story about a murder and a burglary in an apartment building in central Rome shines a harsh light on fascist Italy.
  • The Woman of Rome (Alberto Moravia, 1949). This classic tale of obsession and betrayal set against the backdrop of Mussolini's fascist regime follows a young model who attracts destructive passions.

Movies

  • Ben-Hur (1959). At the height of the Roman Empire, a Jewish prince is enslaved by a friend, and later seeks revenge in a stunning chariot race (the film won a record 11 Oscars).
  • Bicycle Thieves (1948). A poor man looks for his stolen bicycle in busy Rome in this inspirational classic of Italian Neorealism.
  • Caterina in the Big City (2003). A teenager whose family moves to Rome from a small town is the focus of this bitter comedy about the crisis of contemporary Italian society.
  • La Dolce Vita (1961). Director Federico Fellini tells a series of stories that capture the hedonistic days of early 1960s Rome.
  • Gladiator (2000). An enslaved Roman general (Russell Crowe) fights his way back to freedom in Ridley Scott's Oscar winner.
  • The Great Beauty (2013). This thoughtful movie, named best foreign film at the 2014 Academy Awards, showcases Rome in all of its decadence and splendor.
  • Massacre in Rome (1973). Richard Burton and Marcello Mastroianni star in this historical drama, which recounts one of the bloodiest events during the Nazi occupation of Rome.
  • Mid-August Lunch (2008). A broke Roman bachelor gets more than he bargained for when he agrees to take care of an elderly lady during a summer holiday to pay off a debt.
  • Quo Vadis (1951). A Roman general falls in love with a Christian hostage in this epic that includes the burning of Rome, the crucifixion of St. Peter, and the madness of Nero.
  • Rome, Open City (1945). Roberto Rossellini's war drama is set in the Eternal City during the WWII Nazi occupation.
  • Roman Holiday (1953). Audrey Hepburn plays a princess who escapes her royal minders, falls for an American newspaperman (Gregory Peck), and discovers Rome on the back of his scooter.
  • Spartacus (1960). In this epic directed by Stanley Kubrick a gladiator (Kirk Douglas) leads a slave revolt in the last days of the Roman Republic.
  • A Special Day (1977). On the day of Hitler's visit to Rome, the wife (Sophia Loren) of a militant fascist has a fateful meeting with a persecuted journalist (Marcello Mastroianni).

Gene Openshaw is the co-author of the Rick Steves Rome guidebook.